Sleep More, Weigh Less

January 31, 2016 Linda LaRue

Lots of weight loss products promise miracles. One in particular that I recall says a magic pill lets you lose weight while you sleep. Now, groundbreaking new studies are revealing that you don’t even need a mystical (and questionable) potion to lose weight while sleeping; what women in particular need is sleeping itself for effortless weight loss. (Do you know of an easier way to lose weight than indulging in lots of restful sleep?) There’s one caveat though: women need to sleep enough hours to reap the rewards; skimp on sleep and the converse occurs—you’re more likely to put on pounds.

Counting Zzzzzz’s. Are women really more prone to put on pounds when they don’t get enough sleep? Absolutely, says Sanjay Patel, M.D., the lead investigator of the study that revealed the link. To come to this unexpected conclusion, Dr. Patel and his team conducted the largest study of its kind. Starting in 1986, they began to track the sleep habits of almost 70,000 middle-aged women; at the same time, they linked the number of hours each slept each night to weight gain. The sleep-less, weigh-more link was there at the start of the study: women who slept 5 hours or less nightly already weighed about 5.4 pounds more than those who managed seven hours or more each night. Over the next 10 years, the more sleep-deprived women gained an average of 1.6 pounds yearly. While this may not seem like much, over a period of 10 years, this could mean 16 added pounds, or 32 pounds over a 20-year period.

Over the course of the 16-year study, the researchers found that about 33% of women who sleep five hours or less per night are at greatest risk for weight gain. Specifically, these women gained 33 pounds or more over time, while 15% of them gained even more weight and became obese. In comparison, 12% of the women who sleep just one hour more each night—for an average of six hours—are likely to gain weight, with 6% becoming obese; those who typically manage 7 hours or more nightly gained the least weight.

Women’s’ sleepless world. If you’re a woman and you find it difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep, you have a lot of company. When the National Sleep Foundation conducted a national poll, they found that 67% of women experience some kind of sleep problem. There can be lots of reasons for this, but a key culprit seems to be the hormonal mix that occurs between first pregnancy through menopause (which is generally between our twenties into our fifties). During this time, hormone shifts can lead to changes in mood that range from calmness to high-pitched anxiety. The hormone link? Naturally occurring low levels of progesterone can especially lead to a sense of “being on edge.” Add a “you-can-have-it-all” sensibility that permeates our culture, and you have a recipe for sleeplessness.

Fight fat with sleep. Luckily, there are ways to work with too little sleep, and in the process, lower the odds of weight gain. First, put “worry mode” on pause. If ruminating on problems is causing sleep deprivation, write your worries on a piece of paper and decide on a specific time—the next day—when you’ll give them some attention. Other suggestions: sip some soothing chamomile tea, or read a relaxing book before going to sleep. Discover what works best for you, then commit to sleeping 7 hours nightly, the number of hours experts suggest for women to ward off weight gain.

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